Think and Let Think’s Top Ten – 2018

I started Think and Let Think a few years ago as a way to compile my thoughts, sermons, and theology. After starting at my first church in 2013 the blog quickly became an easy way for parishioners to access the sermons from Sunday if they were unable to attend. However, over the years the audience of the blog has grown far beyond the people I serve in the local church and in 2018 the readership more than doubled. 

Below are the 10 most popular posts from 2018…

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  1. The Problem Is Bigger Than A Name

A few years ago I (foolishly) attempted to preach about the controversy surrounding the name of a high school in the community I was serving in. This year the school board voted to change the name and when I reposted the sermon it became (in 24 hours) my most visited post of the year…

“We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?””

 

  1. The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Relative controversy seems to be a theme on the blog this year, and when I decided to write about my feelings regarding churches that offer “Ashes To Go” I inadvertently started a social media battle about the theology (or lack thereof) behind this liturgical practice…

“Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church.

While the world bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.”

 

  1. We Always Marry The Wrong Person

I was blessed to preside over a lot of weddings this year and one particular homily captured the strange and wonderful thing we call marriage.

“Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Marriage is only made possible when you know who you are such that you are willing to enter into the mystery of the other with your whole self.”

 

  1. The Problem With American Christianity

In response to the reports about the warehouse in south Texas that was filled with children separated from their families after crossing over the southern US border, I decided to write down some of my thoughts regarding the so-called “Christian response.”

“We don’t like to talk about divine judgment in the church these days. Most of us are far more comfortable with a God of peace and mercy and justice if it doesn’t require anything on our part. But the psalmist is frighteningly wise to call for the Lord to judge the nations and to not let mortals prevail. Whether we like to think about it, or even admit it, the Lord will judge us for how we treat the least of these.”

 

  1. To My Youngest Sister On The Occasion Of Her Engagement

My youngest sister got engaged this year and I couldn’t help myself from posting the letter that I wrote her.

“I gave thanks to God not because you’ve found your partner, or that you were asked in accordance with your romantic desires; I gave thanks to God because your engagement is a sign (and reminder) of God’s covenant with all of us.

When the day of your wedding arrives, I will stand with the two of you by the altar, and I will ask you to make promises (read: covenants) with each other about the future. A future that you cannot possibly imagine. And I will save more theological reflections for that particular moment, but until that holy time, I will share this – there is a difference between the promise that is now present on your finger, and the promise that marks our hearts.”

 

  1. Make The Church Weird Again

Jeremiah is often overlooked in the great pantheon of the prophets, and I found myself gravitating to his words a lot in 2018.

“If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.

We are pretty weird.

But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”

But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.””

 

  1. Christianity And The Fourth Of July

The strange and problematic relationship between the church in the state is getting more and more complicated to the degree that many American Christians consider their national identity before their baptismal identity. (This one got me in some trouble)

“The 4th of July does not belong to us not because Christians are against America, but simply because our hopes, dreams, and desires have been formed by the Lord. What we experience across the country as we mark the independence is fun and full of power, but it will never compare to the weakness that is true strength in the bread and wine at the communion table and the water in the baptismal font.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us such that we wouldn’t have to.”

 

  1. Dear Church

Taking a cue from John’s epistles I asked a lot of people the same question: “If you could say anything to your/the church, without consequences, what would you say?” And I got a lot of answers.

“Fair warning: some of this will be hard to hear. It will be hard to hear because at times the messages can be convicting, just like John was. Some of them are short and to the point, some of them are a little longwinded and introspective, some will leave us scratching our heads, some will make us lift our chins with pride, and some will make us droop our heads in shame.

But that’s the thing about communication today – sometimes we say what we’re thinking without thinking about how it will be received. And maybe that’s okay…”

 

  1. Incompatible

The United Methodist Church will be voting in February about our denomination’s language about human sexuality, and in order to prime my church for the unknown future, I preached about what happens when we label particular people as being incompatible with Christian teaching.

“Paul does not say the mission of the church is to tolerate the behaviors of others.

            Paul says the church is called to be one.

But can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be one by just being nicer to each other?

There is a tremendous difference between loving one another (like Christ), and being nice. Being nice often means being quiet, and not calling out the behavior of others. Loving like Jesus however, often means speaking up and actually calling someone out.”

            Easier said than done.

 

  1. Trust And Disobey

Obedience is often a dirty word but I wanted to recapture the theme of obedience in scripture and how it often pans out in the world and in the church today.

“It is precisely because God loves us, in spite of us, that we can love others. It is in the recognition of our unworthiness that we can actually meet the other where they are and, in spite of differences, we can love one another.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, not because being close to Jesus helps us get what we need or want.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, because we believe that being close to Jesus allows God to fulfill whatever God wants to get out of this world!”

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Do You Hear What We Hear?

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Christmas Eve is days away and the team behind Crackers & Grape Juice decided to put together a podcast episode with our favorite Christmas music. We come from a variety of places and our musical tastes reflect our strange and various influences. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Do You Hear What We Hear?

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Song List:

The Oh Hello’s – Cold Is The Night
Tom Waits – Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
The Washington Chorus – The Dream Isaiah Saw
Nat King Cole – O Holy Night
Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn

We Are God’s Echo

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The team behind Crackers and Grape Juice hosted a live event back in June on the subject of What We Talk About When We Talk About God. We invited Dr. Kendall Soulen and Dr. Johanna Hartelius to join us as we dove into the subject matter and we wound up covering a lot of ground including a live version of the doxology, the importance of theological grammar, the power of words, gendered pronouns, the challenge of active listening, and co-opted speech. We were able to record the conversation and if you would like to listen to it, or subscribe to the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast, you can do so here: We Are God’s Echo

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

A New, Old Way To Pray

What happens when a group of researchers discover a forgotten prayer tool from the middle-ages? Is it still relevant in the hustle and bustle of the world today? What does the past have to teach us about the future?

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I was fortunate a few weeks ago to record a conversation with 2/3 of the authors (Patton Dodd and Jana Riess) of The Prayer Wheel, a book dedicated to the discovery of the spiritual practice and thoughts about how to implement it today. Our conversation covered a range of other topics including medieval spirituality, the prophet Jeremiah, reverse engineering ancient practices, cherry picking prayers, and embracing imagination and creativity in community. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A New, Old Way To Pray

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

In the world of United Methodism, a number of churches received their new pastors on Sunday. They were paraded in front of a new congregation and asked to offer God’s Word without really knowing anything about the local church.

Having moved twice, I can attest to the strangeness of the occasion.

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In anticipation of the great annual migration, Teer Hardy and I got together to record a podcast episode about pastoral transitions. However, we also covered a number of topics including steep learning curves, the challenges of preaching weekly, intersections between politics and theology, faithful hospitality, proper boundaries, ecclesial whiplash, sleeping in church, and what it’s like to work with the Tamed Cynic, Jason Micheli. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

 

On Pride and Annual Conference or: It’s About God, Stupid.

Psalm 20.7

Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.

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In a few day United Methodists from all over the state of Virginia will gather in Hampton, VA for Annual Conference. It is the conference wide meeting for clergy and lay representatives so that we might worship and deliberate regarding parliamentary decisions that will affect the wider church. Highlights will include the Service of Ordering Ministry when new candidates will be blessed for ministry, we are being sent out on Saturday afternoon to serve the local community, and we will hear from all of the vibrant ministries taking place across Virginia. However, there will come a time when we descend in to the depths of Roberts Rules of Order, individuals will speak into the PA system just to hear the sounds of their own voices, and it will feel a whole lot more like a shareholders meeting than the gathering of God’s people.

As I have been preparing for Annual Conference this year, reading through preliminary reports and wrestling with the fact that its costs $950/minute for us to have conference, I’ve been trying to remember the purpose behind all of this. Because in the midst of all the bickering and conference pontificating, it can be hard to remember why we are gathering.

On my first day of seminary the dean stood up in front of the entire incoming class and gave a 45-minute lecture on the ethics of the New Testament. It was interesting for the first ten minutes and then most of us lost track of where he was going. We struggled to listen but everything was so brand new that most of us were more captivated by the architecture in the sanctuary than what was being said from the pulpit. But he ended with these words, words I will never forget, and words I hope you will never forget.

He said, “Why are you here? Some of you think you’re here because you want to teach in college one day, some of you are here because you believe you can save the church, and some of you are here simply because you love the bible. But why are you here? Now, I want you all to pull out a small piece of paper. You might, and probably will, forget most of what I’ve said today, but this is the most important lesson you will ever learn as Christians. I want you to take your piece of paper and tape it somewhere you will see every single day. You can put in on the mirror in your bathroom, or on your computer, or even on your bible, I don’t care where it is just make sure you see it every single day. And on your piece of paper I want you to write the following words: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’”

Wherever you are when you read this post, I encourage you to find a piece of paper and write down those same words: It’s about God, stupid. Tape it up in your bedroom, fasten it to the front of your bible, keep it in your pocket, just do whatever it takes to encounter those words. Whether you’re attending Annual Conference, showing up for church on Sunday, or just interacting in the community, remember why you are doing it!

The United Methodist Church (and every church for that matter) does not exist to serve the needs of those already in it, it does not exist to further perpetuate the bureaucracy in which it finds too much meaning, it does not exit to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open on Sunday morning. The (UM) church exists because it’s all about God!

God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathes life into our churches over and over again. God is the one who shows up in the bread and cup at the table.

God gather us together for times of holiness, God moves in and through the words we sing, and God rests in the spaces between us when we worship.

As the psalmist writes, our pride is not in chariots or in horses. Our pride is not in the loudest voices shouting in a convention center. Our pride is not in the perfect paraments hanging on the altar.

Our pride is in God.

Because it’s all about God, stupid.

The End Is Music

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A few weeks ago I sat down with Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Johanna Hartelius to record a Crackers & Grape Juice conversation in which we talked about the music that moves us. We were inspired by the late theologian Robert Jenson who once wrote that the end (of all things) is music. We each took two turns playing a particular song (both sacred and secular) and then unpacked how each song affected us theologically. We covered music and genres from Swedish Hymns to Sufjan Stevens. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The End Is Music

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This is me realizing how much time it was going to take to edit the episode.